Daily briefing: Why Namibia might be the next big thing in astronomy

The Namibian astronomy community has a bold plan to take advantage of the country's spectacularly dark, clear skies. Plus, machine-learning researchers talk ethics at NeurIPS and the China coronavirus latest.

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A screen demonstrates facial-recognition technology at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, China

Facial-recognition algorithms have been at the centre of privacy and ethics debates.Credit: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg/Getty

World’s biggest AI conference ponders ethics

“There is no such thing as a neutral tech platform,” warned developmental psychologist Celeste Kidd during her keynote talk at last month’s Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS) conference. At the meeting, which hosted a record 13,000 attendees, researchers grappled with issues including how to enact deeper structural change, to what extent companies should be made responsible for their technologies and the lack of ethical review process for many of the papers published in the field.

Nature | 5 min read

Wuhan coronavirus outbreak

Travel in and out of the Chinese city of Wuhan has been suspended.China Daily via Reuters

Coronavirus death toll continues to rise

• At least 80 deaths have now been associated with the virus, all in China, and confirmed cases of the infection across the country have passed 2,700. Cases have also been confirmed in Taiwan, Thailand, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, France, Japan, South Korea, the United States, Vietnam, Canada and Nepal. (Nature | 7 min read, continuously updated)

• Chinese authorities have closed off travel into and out of the virus-hit city of Wuhan in an attempt to stop the outbreak’s spread. The mass quarantine, announced on 23 January, pens in more than 35 million people across the nation. Nature spoke to three researchers about what it’s like to be inside Wuhan right now. (Nature, 3 min read)

• Structural biologist Rolf Hilgenfeld has been working on a cure for coronaviruses since the 2002–03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). He is making his way to the epicentre of the outbreak, the locked-down city of Wuhan, to test early-stage drug candidates in animals infected with the latest virus. (Nature, 4 min read)

• The speed and openness of the scientific response to the coronavirus has been unprecedented. Ten days after it was first reported in people, scientists in China and Australia released the virus’s genetic sequence. Within hours, research labs worldwide were putting all hands on deck to understand the disease. “This is one of the first times we’re getting to see an outbreak of a new virus and have the scientific community sharing their data almost in real time,” says molecular biologist Michael Letko. (The Washington Post | 5 min read)

Research highlights: 1-minute reads

Giant ground sloths’ graveyard

The bones of 22 giant ground sloths that probably died en masse have been found at an Ecuadorian fossil site. The fossils hint that families of the hulking animals could have gathered at an Ice Age waterhole.

World’s oldest meteorite crater

A crater in Australia that was carved out by an incoming space rock has been dated to 2.23 billion years old, making the scar the oldest known impact crater on Earth. Geological activity has obliterated most of the planet’s ancient crust, but one of the few remaining chunks lies in Western Australia, which is where researchers first documented the Yarrabubba crater in 2003.

Antarctic ice loss detected by ‘icequake’ rumbles

Calving events at Thwaites Glacier, which is shedding vast amounts of ice, have been detected from up to 1,600 kilometres away using seismic ‘icequake’ data. Vibrations measured at seven stations across West Antarctica were confirmed by satellite imagery.

Organoids show the brain’s cognitive centre taking shape

Researchers have now used lab-grown brain tissue to peer — in real time — into the development of the forebrain. Organoids grown from human stem cells shed light on the part of the brain that controls higher mental functions, including cognition and language.

Get more of Nature’s research highlights: short picks from the scientific literature.

Features & opinion

Scientists should speak up for child refugees

In response to a British government decision against welcoming child refugees — and on Holocaust Memorial Day — scientific biographer and obituarist Georgina Ferry reflects on how much leading scientific nations have gained from people to whom they once gave sanctuary. “Take three pioneering researchers who all died in December 2019” — Hans Kornberg, Hannah Steinberg and Leslie Brent — “and all had one other thing in common: they came to Britain in 1938–39 as unaccompanied child refugees from Europe”, writes Ferry.

Nature | 4 min read

Survival of the friendliest

Theories of how life survived and thrived are more complex and collaborative than a simple interpretation of Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest], writes anthropologist John Favini. The lesson for some of us, argues Favini, is to stop imposing a cultural preference for competition on our models of nature — and start finding ways to live more collaboratively.

Slate | 8 min read

The bold plan for Namibia’s spectacular skies

Namibia’s clear weather and large areas free of light pollution and radio interference might make it the next big thing for astronomy. Building on the success of the five High Energy Stereoscopic System telescopes in Windhoek, the Namibian astronomy community has its eyes on an even more ambitious plan: disassemble a decommissioned telescope dish in Chile, move it onto a mountaintop in Namibia and link it to the Event Horizon Telescope that stretches around the globe.

Experience | 7 min read

Quote of the day

“The bottom line is all butterflies are moths, and there’s no such thing as butterflies.”

Entomologist Akito Kawahara says that butterflies are really just a small subset of specialized, day-flying moths — and the fact should open our eyes to their underappreciated moth cousins. (National Geographic)

Moon haloes make for stunning sights, but the ray diagrams explaining them are almost even more fun! Enjoy both from astronomer Juan Carlos Munoz on Twitter.

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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

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